By Emmanuel Howahowa(Malawi)
BY: EMMANUEL HOWAHOWA
We could not retreat this time; we had had enough otherwise we were not fools just to be tossed around like children. We had persevered for a long time; we could not take it any longer. This decision to down tools was final and we could not resume work until our grievances were addressed. As water employees we were quite aware of the consequences that would follow because of our strike. We knew that hospitals and schools would starve due to loss of water. We were aware that water bone diseases would spread as the community would drink from unsafe water. Even our families would not be spared but this was the only way to voice out our concerns, we could not do otherwise.
There was no question that things were not ok at Southern Province Water Board. Our overalls and work suits had become so tattered that they could accurately measure the direction of wind; for two years now we had not had new ones. The message that the toes that peeped out of the gumboots carried was loud and clear; they were crying for replacement. Delays in salaries, unpainted offices, damaged furniture and loss of stationary all bore witness that things had fallen apart at Southern Province Water Board.
Our children began to get surprised why there was no bread, no margarine, no milk, no biscuits and no fresh fish from Peoples at least on a month end. How could we manage all these when we were now experiencing delays in salaries? Previously we used to claim for overtime payments for extra hours that we worked but that was not the case now. It was this overtime that supplemented our salaries to enable us enter Peoples at least once a month and buy the luxuries for our children. The little salaries we were now getting were mostly used to repay katapila. Our suspicious wives began suspecting that we were lavishly spending money on beer and prostitutes; they further claimed that they had evidence. So fragile marriages collapsed on a financial basis.
Several reasons had been given for the situation we were in. Some said that government had accumulated billions of unsettled bills in the government institutions like Secondary schools, police and hospitals. Others said that the cashiers had embezzled huge sums of money and still some blamed the system of paying the bills through the banks. As a statutory corporation, others were of the view that SPWB had not been spared from the cash gate. Regardless of whatever the reasons but it was very clear that something had to be done, urgently for that matter to rescue the sinking Titanic.
The management, the government and the customers had all been alerted of the strike. Placards were now being written and the program had already been drafted; we would be going to work as usual but we would not be working; the road to our offices would be blocked by logs and stones. So we would all be dressed in black to show that we were mourning. So we would be doing this until all our grievance were addressed; until we started getting our salaries on time, until we could claim over time for extra hours we worked, until we could again be able to access loans, until we received new uniforms.
Each passing day was bringing us closer and closer to the end of a seven-day ultimatum we had given to the management.
But just a day before the strike, a memo circulated, inviting us all to an emergency meeting. With abetted breaths we all sat down in our office as our scheme supervisor read the letter that had just arrived from the head office; everybody in their own world of thoughts of what the contents of the letter might be.
I write to inform you about the developments that have been taking place as regards the impending sit in. Three days ago management and the trade union metto map the way forward. Both side agreed that the reasons for the strike are genuine. However, reports from the finance department show that we are in this situation because of huge customer debts.
It was agreed during the meeting that the only solution to come out of this financial mess is to conduct massive disconnection campaign in all schemes. The financial controller assured us that that if we conduct massive disconnection campaign, money will be collected and all operation will continue smoothly.
Wishing you all the best as we embark on this campaign to collect money.
Chief Executive Officer
We remained speechless and motionless as the scheme supervisor finished reading the letter. Like a baby being silenced by a mother’s breast, we could not say anything. The fact that we were in this financial crisis because customers had unpaid debts pained us very much, considering how hard our work was. The work of security guards and operators like me involved taking night shifts, leaving our wives and children alone at home. We struggled with the coldness and got bitten by mosquitoes yet somebody somewhere was just drinking the water without paying for it as if it was manna from heaven. For seven months my house construction project had stalled just because the board could not offer me a loan to complete my house. So this was because someone did not settle the bill. My children were frequently sent back from school because of school fees yet somebody who did not pay for the water had his children in class. This was a painful reality and we were now geared to conduct a massive disconnection campaign.
Three days’ later message had gone across the customers in radio stations and newspapers
‘Southern Province Water Board would like to notify all its customers that it will embark on a massive disconnection campaign of all accounts with outstanding bills of more than thirty days. Customers are therefore advised to settle all their bills to avoid being disconnected. Water is life, pay for it’.
The procedure of SPWB as regards disconnection was that workers moved from their original work place and deployed to another scheme. That is how this Monday morning I was found in the office at Safe Water Treatment Plant with other employees from other schemes being welcomed by the manager. He was stout man with a protruding potbelly that when he stood perpendicular to the floor, he looked like an eight-month pregnant woman. The glittering bald and the grey hairs just bore witness that he was born several rains ago. His voice was tiny; a voice that did not match with his appearance.
‘Gentlemen we are entering into the field for a purpose; to collect money. Gentlemen the only way to collect money in our board is disconnection campaign so take it seriously. We are not entering into the field to play or to see the locations or to admire the beautiful ladies. You are not visitors in Jerusalem that I should waste my time explaining the financial hurdles we are going through. Rules of the game remain unchanged; meter readers will lead you to the meters that you have to disconnect. Always treat customers with courtesy. No money or any form of bribery from customers will be entertained, if discovered you will be penalised accordingly. Remember we are against time, don’t spend more than five minutes with one customer; the faster we are the more cash we collect’
when he finished addressing us, we left like stray dogs just unleashed ready to bite. Dressed in our overalls labelled SPWB at the back we got packed in a Toyota Pickup and moved along the roads and the locations delivering the message through the mega phone that disconnection campaign had begun. Music blurring, we danced while blandishing the spanners in the air. We proudly called the spanners zikwanje. As we passed along the markets business came to a standstill as both traders and buyers glued their eyes to us. It was a scene that could easily make somebody think that we were very happy just like children welcoming the first rains but deep down our hearts it was anger boiling.
On this first day we invaded Mataka area. The operation went on well. We managed to disconnect over hundred meters. Customers kept coming to our offices to pay their bills and about thirty meters were reconnected the same day. In the field we got insulted by some customers as if the disconnection of supply was a personal hatred towards them but such was the nature of our job; we had just got used to that after all we had been given allowances and we sure of consoling ourselves with a bottle or two in the evening. In some houses we found the fences locked while others just left the dogs unchained.
On the second day we were in Lipopi area. The disconnection started on a good note. As the operation continued, the meter reader showed me this other house that had an outstanding balance. My spanners and the other two meters I had disconnected from the other houses in hand approached the woman there. She was just alone. She was of medium height, light skinned and just above the line that separates slimness and stoutness. Her short hair was very dark and the teeth milky white. When she talked a pair of dimples were formed on her spotless cheeks; she was just beautiful; after all, does being on disconnection campaign mean not appreciating beauty? lucky was the man who had married her; She told me that her husband had settled all the bills before going to Chikangawa forest for a week workshop; he was working with the forest department. So she entered the bedroom to take a receipt for me to verify. I was becoming impatient because he was taking time so I just went straight to the meter to do my ‘humble’ duty but she called me to the bedroom to help her look for the receipt. So we searched for a receipt from the heap of her husband’s files but we could not find it.
Five minutes later we just found ourselves comfortably sitting on a double bed; hugging and kissing each other ‘hungrily’ as if there was only a minute remaining before the end of the world. We did not mind to close the door, after all her children had gone to school and the husband had gone to Chikangawa forest so many miles away, so there was nothing to fear. Next we just realised that the ‘inevitable’ had happened.
‘Commercial break’. Both of us in the birth suits, we sprawled ourselves on the bed. There was little talking this time, just smiles here and there. As the new episode in the series was just about to begin, we heard a sound of a car. We both jumped of the bed to peep though the window who’s the car was. A man, light skinned in complexion and not very stout, wearing a nerve blue three-piece suit embarked from the Prado. In his right hand was a Shoprite plastic bag full of groceries. A laptop bag had been suspended on the left shoulder; she was Jane’s husband.
So I rushed and folded myself under the bed as Jane picked a piece of chitenje, wrapped it around her chest and went out to welcome her husband with a pair of kisses on both cheeks as if nothing had happened at all. They both entered the sitting room. Jane left the Shoprite bag on the coffee table as the man threw the laptop bag on the sofa. Jane’s hand in the husband’s, they entered the bedroom and sat on the bed. Jane was untying her husband’s jacket buttons.
‘Honey, there is one important document that I left behind accidentally, it’s a report of the workshop that we conducted at Michiru hill last month. Am supposed to present it before the end of this work shop. So am just here for just an hour or two and will come back on Friday as earlier planned’
Under the bed I felt a bit relieved when I heard that he was not taking long. At least he would soon leave and the I would come out and continue where we had left with Jane but alas! I had forgotten my gumboots as I got under the bed. So as the man looked around he saw my gumboots standing idly beside the bed.
‘Honey, what’s that?’
He asked calmly, pointing at my gumboots
‘Hey honey have you just become dumb all of a sudden
‘Am I talking to a log, a stone or a human being?
His voice was now rising, roaring like a lion.
‘I... I.... I.... don’t.... know...
‘You don’t know, yet it’s you who has been sleeping in here! You think you are talking to a child?’
The quarrel erupted, down the bed I was sweating heavily, I knew the situation had gone worse. So they quarrelled for about five minutes and the man then looked under the bed.
‘you, idiot come out before I kick you’
He spoke strongly and with authority like a pastor commanding the evil spirit to come out of a repentant. I knew that delaying could just worsen the situation. So I came out; literally naked. I tried to hide my nakedness with my hands as I knelt down on my knees to apologise.
‘What brings you here?’
It was a question and a slap on my left cheek with the back of his hand simultaneously. I saw a million stars in broad day light. I did not respond, tears started cascading down my cheeks.
‘Don’t you speak you fool?!
A pair of thunderous slaps on both of my cheeks. Another million stars.
‘Get out of my house your moron!’
He kicked me with his shoe, throwing my gumboots way. His shouting attracted the attention of the neighbours. As I got out, three young men from the neighbouring houses grabbed me without even finding out what was happening; at least it was clear that something was wrong, how could a literally naked man be seen coming out of a house, running. It was them that started clobbering me with blows as they shouted.
The news that a man had been caught red handed in another man’s house travelled at the supersonic speed penetrating the shops, the tall buildings and the houses within the shortest period of time. Within few minutes, a crowd of people; men, women and youth was flocking to the scene. They jostled each other for a better view as I lay helplessly in the pool of blood. Like insects going towards the lamp on a moonless night, tens of people continued to flock to Jane’s house creating tension to the neighbouring houses.
The cacophony grew louder and louder as the crowd swelled. I could hear others shouting ‘let’s just kill him’. Others suggested they just torch me to ashes. Many of them were just talking to those close to them. There were still some that suggested that I had received enough punishment and I be set free but their voices could not be heard. Now there was this woman who recognised me. She managed to silence the group and began speaking.
‘Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I recognise this man. This man is a Water board employee. He is among the disconnection crew that have been moving around disconnecting metres with debts. Now, ladies and gentlemen I plead with you, let us not kill him, let us not torch him, let us not harm him’
At last here was a ‘good Samaritan’ to rescue me, I thought to myself. She continued to address the group among the shouts and murmurings.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this man has been disconnecting meters why don’t we too just disconnect his manhood and set him free’
The woman statement sent the group to a thunderous laughter and shouting. The noise resumed. So I knew that no matter what I would face the music today. Its either I would be torched or I would die due to loss of blood or I would have my private parts amputated. Some five meters away two tyres were being burnt and bellows of smoke flew into the atmosphere. I knew they were targeted at me. Meanwhile they continued trampling on me, I could not move an inch, I felt like a grasshopper under the elephant’s foot....
.... and then I just realised that am here at hospital, in the Intensive Care Unit. How I was found here, who brought me, I just can’t explain. Here am in deep agony; my whole head is in bandages, there are stitches in my abdomen and my right leg is in plaster of Paris. The pain that I am going through is just unbearable and am sure that my minutes on earth are coming to an end. So my children at home do not know anything, they are still waiting for the new dresses and biscuits that I promised them. As for my wife I know she will be shocked when my body gets home. She will wail uncontrollably. Am sure she will not understand why I did this. For all the seventeen years that I have been in marriages with her she proved to be a caring woman and she did everything for me but my infidelity has paid me. So my death will mark a new chapter in the life of my wife and children – a very said chapter. Disconnection campaign has ruined my life